The New Frontier Neuroscience Advancements and Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral

The New Frontier
Neuroscience Advancements and
Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral
Health Care Providers
Laudan Aron
Carl Zimmer
Patrice Heinz,
Contributing Editor
The Ultimate Agency Advantage
Copyright 2005 by the Alliance for Children and Families. All rights
reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any
manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case
of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.
Preface Peter B. Goldberg
About the Authors and Contributors
Foreword Harold Davis, M.D.
Introduction Patrice A. Heinz
Advancements In Neuroscience Carl Zimmer
The Once and Future…Now
10 How the Brain Works: The View from 2005
• Studying the Brain
10 The Intersection of Neuroscience and Behavioral Health
• Genes, Brains, and Behavior
• Insights about Psychological Disorders
12 Sidebar Brain Architecture: The Cerebral Cortex and the Limbic System
15 Diagnosis and Treatment
• Diagnosis
• Treatments
• Medication
• Psychotherapy and Other “Non-medical” Treatments
• Monitoring Treatment
18 Summary
19 Implications for Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Laudan Y. Aron
19 Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Advances
▲ ▲
23 Institutional/Systemic Implications of Neuroscience Advances
26 Role of Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
26 Summary
27 Bibliography
24 Societal Implications of Advances in Neuroscience
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
dvancements in biotechnology, bioengineering, neuroscience, genetics and other medical specialties have dramatically altered the way people are diagnosed and treated
for injury or disease. These advancements promise to continue at unprecedented rates
of discovery. Along the way, bioethicists, philosophers, politicians, medical practitioners and
other professionals will debate the numerous and very complex ethical, financial and service
delivery issues inherent in each new development.
While discussion has already begun on these issues within the medical field, very little
attention has been given to the potential for these advancements to impact a parallel field:
nonprofit behavioral health services. These providers – many operating under traditional
social service models – provide a multitude of services aligned to medicine, including mental
health and substance abuse counseling.
This report, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is the first effort of a multiyear project that focuses on exploring how advancements in neuroscience will impact the
abilities of nonprofit human service providers to organize and deliver behavioral health services in the future. Two questions framed the paper’s development and organization:
What neuroscience diagnostic and treatment advancements have occurred which
are likely to impact nonprofit human service providers? Three areas were targeted
for this examination: pharmaceutical, surgical and biomedical.
What is likely to change in response to these advancements? Capacities of nonprofits explored in this area included clinical, institutional/systemic and societal roles.
The answers to these questions will in turn, we expect, foster another set of critical questions
for the nonprofit behavioral health care field: How will agencies create or set strategies for
growth when rapidly emerging neuroscience advancements will demand the ability to react
quickly to new opportunities? How will they capitalize new technological and neuroscientific
functions required for behavioral health diagnostic and treatment strategies? Will the human
services field undergo dramatic reorganization as smaller and less adept agencies go out of
business and larger, more technically sophisticated agencies gain a greater share of the
behavioral health market through partnerships with scientific or medical professions? What
public policy strategies will be required to support the integration of neuroscience advancements with traditional social service behavioral health care models?
The Alliance for Children and Families is pleased to publish this pioneering analysis of the
impact of neuroscience advancements on nonprofit behavioral health care. We hope the
information presented here serves as a stimulus for a thoughtful and provocative discussion
on the integration of neuroscience advancements with traditional social services. We are committed to remaining a leader in this important and timely dialogue.
Peter B. Goldberg
President and Chief Executive Officer
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
e would first and foremost like to thank the Pioneer Group of the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation for its recognition of the importance of this critical issue. Its understanding and vision of the role of nonprofits in behavioral health care stands as testament to its leadership in exploring the edges of emerging medical science. We would like in particular to thank Constance M. Pechura, Ph.D., Senior Program Officer at the Foundation, for the
guidance, experience and wisdom she so graciously and willingly contributed to our efforts.
We are also grateful to the many individuals who contributed their time, experience and insights
as we researched the intersection of neuroscience and behavioral health care, and strove to
understand its implications for the nonprofit sector. Our appreciation goes most notably to:
Daniel G. Amen, M.D.
President and CEO of Amen Clinics, inc.
Martha J. Farah, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
Laurie Flynn
former Executive Director of National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Laurie R. Garduque, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Michael S. Gazzaniga, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Dartmouth College
David C. Guth
CEO and Co-Founder of Centerstone (TN)
Judy Illes, Ph.D.
Director, Program in Neuroethics, Center for Biomedical Ethics,
Stanford University School of Medicine
Lauren R. LeRoy, Ph.D.
President and CEO, Grantmakers in Health
Terri Moffitt, Ph.D.,
Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin
John R. Weisz, Ph.D.
Judge Baker Children’s Center, Harvard University
Finally, we would like to acknowledge the assistance of the leadership and staff from three
Alliance members or affiliated agencies who served as resources for this report:
Louise Burgess
President and CEO, Family & Children’s Service (TN)
Bill Martone
President and CEO and Emily McGrath,
Assistant Director of Program Evaluation, The Sycamores (CA)
C.T. O’Donnell
President and CEO, KidsPeace (PA)
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
About the Authors and Contributors
LAUDAN Y. ARON is a Senior Research Associate with the Urban
Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population. She
has over fifteen years of experience in social policy research and is
noted for her work on homelessness, disability, employment and
training, education, child welfare, child support, and family violence. She is the lead author of Serving Children with Disabilities:
A Systematic Look at the Programs (Urban Institute Press 1996),
and more recently, Helping America’s Homeless: Emergency Shelter
or Affordable Housing? (Urban Institute Press 2001). She has written three book chapters on rural homelessness, and is now working
on a second book on childhood disability programs.
Her work has included national program evaluations, survey
designs and analysis, and reviews of the literature for many federal
agencies, including the Departments of Health and Human Services,
Labor, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, and Education.
Prior to joining the Urban Institute in 1992, Ms. Aron served as an
Associate and later a Senior Associate in the economic analysis and
evaluation practice area of Lewin-ICF.
Ms. Aron recently managed a project for the Social Security
Administration to develop an initial design for the Mental Health
Treatment Study, and has co-authored a paper for the Ticket to
Work and Work Incentives Advisory Panel on promoting work
among SSI/DI beneficiaries with serious mental illness. She is also
currently conducting research on educational alternatives for vulnerable youth, and intimate partner violence and the “mail order
bride” industry.
CARL ZIMMER, author, journalist and lecturer, writes about science
for The New York Times, as well as for magazines including The
New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Discover, Science,
Newsweek, and Natural History. His book reviews appear in The
New York Times Book Review, The Washington Book World,
Newsday, and Scientific American. From 1994 to 1999 he was a
senior editor at Discover.
The New York Times Book Review calls Carl Zimmer “as fine a
science essayist as we have.” His first book, At the Water’s Edge
(1999) followed scientists as they tackled two of the most intriguing evolutionary puzzles of all: how fish walked ashore, and how
whales returned to the sea. It was followed in 2000 by Parasite
Rex, which explores the bizarre world of nature’s most successful
life forms. In 2001 he published Evolution: The Triumph of An Idea,
the companion volume to a PBS television series. It was named one
of the best science books of the year by both Discover and New
Scientist. Soul Made Flesh, Zimmer’s latest book, chronicles the
dawn of neurology in the 1600s. The Sunday Telegraph calls it a
“tour-de-force.” It was named one of the 100 notable books of
2004 by the New York Times Book Review and was chosen as a
2004 Editor’s Pick by
His honors include the American Association for the
Advancement of Science’s 2004 Science Journalism Award, the
Pan-American Health Organization Award for Excellence in
International Health Reporting, the American Institute Biological
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
Sciences Media Award, and the Everett Clark Award for science
writing. In 2002 he was named a John Simon Guggenheim
Memorial Foundation Fellow. He is also an associate fellow at
Morse College, Yale University. Zimmer frequently lectures about
science, and has appeared on numerous radio programs, including
Fresh Air and This American Life.
DR. HAROLD DAVIS serves as Project Advisor to the Alliance’s neuroscience project. He is President of HMD Consulting, LLC, providing
insight and expertise on issues related to healthcare delivery in
urban communities, health disparities impacting low-income
groups, corporate healthcare delivery systems, business ethics, executive leadership, development and coaching, organizational and
individual stress management, mentoring, corporate philanthropy,
corporate diversity, multicultural marketing, and urban education
initiatives. Prior to his retirement in January 2002 from Prudential
Financial, Inc., Dr. Davis served as Senior Vice President and Chief
Ethics Officer. Before becoming Senior Vice President and Chief
Ethics Officer, Dr. Davis served as Vice President, Employee Health
Services, Departmental Vice President and Chief Medical Director,
Employee Health and Wellness. Before joining Prudential, Dr. Davis
was Associate Medical Director at ITT Corporation (1977-1978) and
Clinical Director at Mobil Oil Corporation (1978-1987).
Dr. Davis has served as a thirty-three year member of the
Executive Board of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, a New
York City based scholastic assistance organization. He is currently
chairman of the Strategic Planning Committee and member of the
Board of Trustees and Governors of Cathedral Healthcare System,
an Advisory Board Member of the National Eagles Leadership
Institute, an Advisory Board Member for the Center for Disease
Control (CDC) Committee on HIV and AIDS prevention; Chairman of
the Community Advisory Board for the Institute for the Elimination
of Health Disparities at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of
New Jersey (UMDNJ), Award Committee Member for the American
Business Ethics Award (ABEA), and Chairman of the National HOPE
Award Committee. Dr. Davis is also a member of the Board of
Directors for KidsPeace, a multi-state organization focused on serving children in crisis. In addition, Dr. Davis has served on several
national and local committees dealing with the nation’s HIV/AIDS
epidemic, and with organizations focused on improving healthcare
opportunities and outcomes for low-income communities.
Dr. Davis has a BA degree from Wesleyan University (1969)
and an MD degree from Yale University Medical School (1974),
where he was awarded the Litz prize for best medical student
thesis on a psychosocial topic. He is the recipient of numerous
awards and honors, including the Achievers Award in Industry
from ITT Corporation and Prudential, Columbia University’s
Charles Drew Award, the National Eagle Leadership Institute’s
Award, the Corporate Citizenship award from Women in Support
of the Million Man March, the G. Albert Shoemaker Award in
Business Ethics from Penn State University, and the U.M.D.N.J
Urban Scholars Program award.
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
e stand witness today to neuroscientific discoveries that are increasing at exponential rates. But as exciting as these advancements in neurotechnology, neuropharmacology, and neurobiology are, we must acknowledge that they pose important organizational, educational, relationship, and ethical challenges for practitioners, funding sources,
consumers, and other interested groups.
The challenges confronting nonprofit community-based behavioral health organizations in
particular are daunting – and increasing in their complexity, scope, and composition. Demands
for these organizations to be much more credible providers of service, with evidence that they
are achieving verifiable results, represent the new business model. It is a model imperative to
the successful integration of neuroscience advances with traditional social services. In the
future, it will be results which determine the “winners” and “losers,” both in the public’s eye
and the funders’ priorities.
For organizations with adequate staff and available funding sources, the challenge of evidence-based practice will no doubt be viewed as an opportunity. For those with small operations and very limited funding, this new criterion of credibility quite possibly portends the
demise of their organizations. As Laudan Aron, one of the authors of this report observes,
many organizations are struggling just to survive in this environment of intense competition.
They are not positioned in structure, funding, personnel composition or service sophistication
to either establish evidence-based practices or incorporate the advancements being made in
neuroscience. This, unfortunately, characterizes many community-based organizations: they
view the lavish banquet table of plenty before them with frustration because they have not
been invited to partake or they are ill prepared to feast.
To overcome these barriers, advocates on each side of the issue, both service providers and
funding sources, must fashion new relationships and collaborations. These relationships must
be built on a clear communication of expectations by funders and oversight agencies. Doing
so will allow for optimal organizational mission, structure, operation, and outcomes on the
part of service providers – and a greater guarantee that they will achieve credible and verifiable enhancements in mental health services.
The responsibility for providing credible performance and service does not sit solely on the
shoulders of service providers. It must be shared by funders and oversight agencies that identify the problems to be addressed and participate in determining the outcomes that must be
achieved. What is funded is what is serviced. Indeed, if the target is wrong, then all of the
arrows expended, even if they hit the bull’s eye, reflect a miss!
Research institutions themselves must also become partners in this new journey. They must
enhance their functional scope and mandates by determining how they will disseminate their
advances to the service-provider networks that actually interface with the clients who are the
research targets. For too long the barriers between research and application have not been
addressed or dismantled, leaving in its path wasted resources, societal discontent and dismay,
and the ineffective application of behavioral science and health advancements. Its most dire
consequence is lives lost to purposeful function.
Through this project, we encourage an open, dynamic, and useful conversation between all
of the agencies committed to enhancing the behavioral health profile of our citizens. To
achieve this end we will have to be brave, open, and honest in our deliberations with old and
new colleagues. The challenges before us are great, but the opportunities to achieve a
greater good are limitless. I welcome and encourage your involvement in our journey towards
relationship and discovery.
Harold Davis, M.D.
Project Advisor
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
he idea for this paper was germinated several years ago in
a briefing report that the Alliance asked me to develop on
the impact of emerging technologies on nonprofits. As a
passionate hobbyist of medical science, I recognized and argued
that it was more likely neuroscience, not the hard wires and software of new technologies, which stood to profoundly alter the
future of nonprofit behavioral healthcare. The response from the
Alliance was immediate and positive: examine it, include it.
In the four years since that briefing report was published we
have borne witness to a steady, albeit hushed, revolution. Some
of the Alliance’s members have become actively engaged in
applying neuroscience and biotechnology advancements in their
practices, as this report details. Others have forged linkages with
universities and researchers as a way to better understand and
prepare for the formal integration of neuroscience into their traditional practices. A few have been approached by larger, better
capitalized behavioral health organizations in takeover, merger or
partnership attempts – we’ll examine one of those agencies in a
case study to be published later this year. But all have been
touched in some way by neuroscience – through the pharmaceutical industry and its new drugs prescribed for many human service clients, the better understanding of the mind-body link within
the psychology and psychiatric fields, or the emergence of evidence-based practice, driven by research and increasingly
demanded by funders and reimbursement streams.
In their respective sections, authors Carl Zimmer and Laudan
Aron define the specific neuroscience advancements most likely
to impact nonprofits in the next decade (Zimmer), and the implications those advancements will stimulate (Aron). Their findings
and assessments are remarkable for their depth, clarity and direction – it is one thing to grasp the concepts of emerging science;
it is altogether another thing to communicate those concepts
in a manner that is accessible and compelling. Indeed it was Carl
Zimmer who, in a discussion on the impact of neuroscience
developments on troubled youth, capsulized a critical issue for
providers of nonprofit behavioral health care. “Society,” he said,
“views these kids as bad people. But science says they simply
have ‘bad’ brains.”
In his section discussing neuroscientific developments, Zimmer
argues that much of the recent attention-grabbing neuroscience
headlines (for example, stem cell research) will not have much
impact on behavioral health care in the next decade. Instead, he
winnows the magnitude of neuroscience advancements down to
five critical areas that his research suggests will impact nonprofits
in direct and/or significant ways: the emergence of more accurate
diagnostic tools through genotyping and brain imaging; the use
of electrical stimulation to treat behavioral health issues; the
development of better drugs based on better neuroscientific
understanding of brain-based disorders; the use of imaging technologies to establish and monitor treatment strategies for behavCopyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
ioral health care patients; and the combining of talk-based therapies with cognitive-enhancing drugs.
For her part, Aron posits that advances in neuroscience will
accelerate the medicalization of behavioral health care, leading to
further specialization of all behavioral health functions – assessment, treatment and post-treatment – and affecting both the
types of services that are delivered to clients and the sequencing
of those services. That said, she suggests that advancements in
neuroscience will add to the understanding of the importance of
healthy social and physical environments in life, and because of
that, there will be additional support forthcoming for more and
better early intervention and prevention efforts – including effective counseling and other psychosocial interventions. She presents
a strong case that these advancements will require providers to
be much more knowledgeable and “evidence-based” in their
thinking (both for clinical and business reasons), to engage in
more consumer education (and reeducation), and to quicken their
shift from institutional- and facility-based delivery of behavioral
health services to home- and community-based settings. Finally,
she observes that advancements in neuroscience will require new
institutional relationships and partnerships, including linkages
between more traditional nonprofit social service agencies and
psychiatric and medical-surgical hospitals or private diagnostic
and screening centers with sophisticated imaging and other medical equipment.
he intersection of neuroscience, biotechnology and behavioral health described here is an extraordinary and astonishing accomplishment in our lifetime. Although not a
definitive list, this paper suggests the complexity created by these
advancements does indeed pose a number of critical programmatic, organizational, ethical, social and political challenges for
the nonprofit behavioral health sector. And yet, as the report also
suggests, there is magnificent opportunity – to embrace new
approaches, new partners, new ways of thinking and doing business. We welcome you to the new frontier.
Patrice A. Heinz
Project Director & Contributing Editor
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
Advancements in Neuroscience
Carl Zimmer
euroscience research covers a vast range of topics from
consciousness to neurochemistry. For providers of
nonprofit behavioral health care, reports on recent
advances in neuroscience can be perplexing. Will brain
scans and new medications do away with more traditional diagnoses and therapies? Will stem cells provide the “cure” for mental
illness or behavioral health issues? Or is it all so much hype, with
no real relevance to the reality of nonprofit behavioral health care?
A survey of current neuroscience research suggests that the
future will lie somewhere between these two extremes. Some current advances in neuroscience may change nonprofit behavioral
health care in direct, dramatic ways. Other advances will likely have
an impact that’s not quite as direct but nonetheless still significant.
And those advances underway in neuroscience research that are
most effective at grabbing headlines? They will probably not have
much effect on behavioral health care in the next several decades.
What is clear is this: neuroscientists are revealing the ways in which
trauma, depression, and other disorders leave tangible marks on
the functioning of the brain. It is this broadening knowledge more
than perhaps anything else that will change the way behavioral
health care providers think about psychological disorders.
The Once and Future…Now
The advancements discussed in this paper – by no means a definitive accounting of the neuroscience revolution – offer nonprofit
behavioral health care providers an opportunity to merge science
with service. Our review suggests there are five advancements
that hold the most immediate promise of having an important
and direct impact on nonprofit behavioral health care:
• The identification of more accurate diagnoses using genotyping
and brain imaging.
• The use of electrical stimulation (including surgically implanted
devices and transcranial magnetic stimulation) as treatments
for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, and other
psychological disorders.
• Improved drugs developed on better neuroscientifically-based
understanding of psychological disorders.
• The use of brain imaging to establish treatment strategies and
monitor responses to those strategies.
• The integration of talk-based therapies with cognitive enhancing drugs.
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
To appreciate this range of impacts, we have organized this portion
of our report into two general sections. In the first, “How the Brain
Works – The View from 2005” we examine some of the key tools
now used to probe the brain, such as neuroimaging and genetic
studies. In the second section, “The Intersection of Neuroscience
and Behavioral Health,” we take a closer look at particular aspects
of the brain that are especially relevant to behavioral health and
consider how advances in neurosciences are likely to engage with
traditional practices.
Neurons are exquisitely sophisticated cells capable
of receiving information, processing it, and then relaying it to another neuron by means of electrical impulses. The light from the sun, for example, enters your eye
and is absorbed by receptors on the ends of neurons
located in the retina. These receptors trigger an electrical impulse that travels down the length of the neuron.
The neuron triggers an impulse in other neurons it
makes contact with in the optic nerve, which relay the
signals to the brain, ultimately producing your perception of the sun. The branches through which a neuron
sends this signal are called axons. A single neuron may
have a thousand or more axons, each communicating
to a separate neuron.
A small gap exists between an axon and another neuron, known as a synapse. When an impulse reaches the
tip of an axon, it causes a number of compounds to be
released into the synapse. These neurotransmitters can
then be taken up by the next neuron. Depending on the
combination and levels of these compounds, an electrical impulse may be triggered in the next neuron. Some
neurons specialize in releasing neurotransmitters that
can make it easier or harder for neighboring neurons to
respond to an incoming signal. Because a single neuron
may form synapses with dozens of axons, it may receive
many incoming signals. It processes these signals in a
process akin to a computer, and the combination of the
signals determines the output it produces.
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
Advancements in Neuroscience
How the Brain Works:
The View from 2005
Studying the Brain
The brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons. They are
organized into specialized networks that allow the brain to process
information about the world (and about ourselves) with remarkable
speed. These networks are relatively distinct from one another, but
they are also linked together so that they can cooperate.
Neuroscientists use a range of techniques to learn how the many
regions of the brain work. Neuroimaging, a method that allows
neuroscientists to map diverse activity in the brain, has provided
scientists with remarkable opportunities to explore not just the
structure of the brain, but its networking functions and malfunctions as well. For many nonprofit behavioral health care providers,
one of the most relevant advances in brain imaging has been the
development of methods that allow for the safe and accurate imaging of children.
These methods have opened the door to a growing number of
studies that are shedding light on how the human brain develops
through childhood and revealing important differences between
mature and immature brains.
(a pointed gun, for example) and others that are neutral (a door, for
example). Both sets of pictures activated visual processing regions
of the brain, as expected. But the frightening images on average
trigger a stronger reaction from the amygdala, a region we will
examine later.
Positron-Electron Tomography (PET)
In PET, subjects are injected with a radioactive tracer. As the tracer
flows through the subject’s bloodstream, some of it makes its way
into the brain. Depending on the tracer used in a given study, it will
accumulate in different parts of the brain. Some tracers will simply
concentrate in parts of the brain that use a large amount of energy.
A scanning device can then detect the emissions released by the
tracers and create a map of their concentrations in the brain.
It can take several minutes for tracers to build up enough in the
brain before a PET scan can be made. In this respect, PET is at a
disadvantage to fMRI. But PET offers a number of other advantages. Scientists can produce tracers, for example, that bind only to
receptors on the surface of neurons. They can even bind to a certain
type of receptor that can accept a single neurotransmitter.
Other Neuroimaging Techniques
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)
FMRI takes advantage of the fact that when certain molecules are
exposed to an intense rotating magnetic field, they release radio
waves. During an fMRI scan, this field is produced by a large
doughnut shaped magnet. Subjects lie on a bed with their head
surrounded by this magnet. As the magnet field moves around,
molecules in the brain release radio waves. These signals are
detected by the scanner and sent to a powerful computer where
they can be analyzed. This analysis produces a series of “brain
slices”— high-resolution two-dimensional maps of a set of brain
layers. The brain slices can then be combined into a three-dimensional scan of the brain.
Once neuroscientists have acquired this high-resolution scan of
the brain’s anatomy, they can pinpoint regions of the brain that
become active during different kinds of thought. This technique
takes advantage of the fact that neurons must consume oxygen to
generate energy whenever they receive a signal. As active regions
consume oxygen, more oxygen-rich blood moves towards them.
FMRI can detect this shift in regions as small as a cubic millimeter,
the size of a peppercorn. In typical fMRI experiments, a complete
scan of the brain can be completed every two seconds.
A single fMRI scan offers relatively little information, because
many regions of the brain are active at any moment. One common
method to extract information from fMRI is to compare scans from
different experimental conditions. For example, neuroscientists have
shown subjects a series of pictures, some of which are frightening
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
Most neuroimaging studies published today rely on fMRI or PET.
But researchers are also investigating other means of scanning the
brain. SPECT, or single-photon emission computed tomography, is
similar to PET, detecting radioactive tracers injected in the body.
Instead of detecting positrons and electrons, as in PET, SPECT
detects gamma rays. Another method in development uses beams
of near-infrared light to detect changes in oxygen levels in the
brain. New imaging techniques promise to overcome the constraints of current neuroimaging methods, such as the bulky equipment of fMRI and the invasive injections of PET.
The Intersection of Neuroscience
and Behavioral Health
Genes, Brains, and Behavior
Research on genes may someday lead to advances in treatment
and diagnosis strategies used in nonprofit behavioral health care.
Currently, scientists are still only beginning to decipher the role
genes play in the development and function of the human brain.
Many people think that DNA contains the brain’s “blueprint,” but
the metaphor quickly collapses when you consider what is actually
known about genes. Genes carry the code for proteins, but typically
a protein must cooperate with many other proteins to perform even
a simple function in the brain, such as growing an axon tip.
Emotions, cognition and other high-level functions of the human
brain—the functions that are most relevant to the work of nonprofit behavioral health care providers—each depend on a vast number
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
Advancements in Neuroscience
of genes. Consequently, it appears that there is no single gene
“for” depression, aggression, or any other condition.
Making matters even more complicated, the information carried
in our DNA is only transformed into proteins when cells receive
specific signals. The environment in which a brain develops—both
in the mother’s womb and during childhood—help determine
which signals are received by neurons, and therefore help steer the
brain towards its mature form.
While the interplay of genes and environment may be complex,
that doesn’t mean that neuroscientists have no way of studying it.
Because we share an evolutionary heritage with other mammals,
we inherit similar genes, making the study of laboratory animals
valuable to the understanding of humans. Scientists have found
that humans and other mammals respond in strikingly similar ways
to stress, down to the hormones and neurotransmitters that are
released in response. By breeding generations of animals, scientists
can isolate individual genes that play a role in stress or other features of the brain. They can also expose lab animals to different
experiences and environments to see how these factors interact
with genes.
Of course, humans are not identical to monkeys or mice, and as a
result animal models have certain limitations. Because many experiments on humans are unethical, scientists can only gather information about the roles of genes and environment indirectly. In recent
years, scientists have made important strides in the methods they
use to gather this information.
One way is to compare twins. All twins experience the same environment in their mothers’ womb. But while identical twins (who
have developed from a single egg) carry identical genes, fraternal
twins (who develop from two separate eggs each fertilized by a
separate sperm) only share 50% of their genes.
Scientists can look for genetic components to a condition by comparing its rate in identical and fraternal twins. If an identical twin
has a condition with a strong genetic component, his or her twin
will be likely to have it as well. If the condition has only a weak
genetic component, the correlation between identical twins will be
much lower—comparable to that found in fraternal twins.
These surveys have allowed geneticists to identify individual
genes that may play a role in given conditions. The search for
behavior-related genes has produced many failures and much frustration, but several promising candidate genes are now known. And
neuroimaging promises to help bring the roles of these genes into
sharper focus.
In the 1990s, for example, several teams of scientists found an
association between a gene involved in transporting the neurotransmitter serotonin and levels of anxiety and neuroticism. The
gene, called 5HTT, comes in short and long forms, and the short
form was associated with higher levels of anxiety and neuroticism.
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
Other research suggested that this was a plausible link. A number
of effective anti-anxiety drugs are known as selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). It has been proposed that by interfering
with the return of serotonin inside neurons, these medications
somehow relieve symptoms such as anxiety, although the precise
mechanism has not been identified. Despite the plausibility of this
link, however, later studies failed to replicate it.
A 2002 study by scientists at the National Institutes of Health
suggests that this failure may be the result of conventional psychological measurements, which may not be able to detect a small but
real correlation. The NIH team conducted fMRI studies on subjects
to measure how strongly their amygdala responded to the sight of
fearful faces. They found that people who carried one or two copies
of the short version of the serotonin transporter gene had a
stronger response than people who had two long copies of the
gene. The correlation was much stronger than previous studies.
As we will see in later sections, understanding the interplay of
genes and experience could improve diagnosis and treatment.
Insights about Psychological Disorders
Neuroscience research is generating new hypotheses about the
origins of a number of psychological disorders.
Of all psychological disorders, no other condition has attracted
more attention from neuroscientists than depression. While the
biological dimensions of depression still pose many mysteries,
researchers have made some important advances that will help in
the diagnosis and treatment of this condition.
In the 1990s, scientists began scanning the brains of depressed
subjects, using fMRI, PET, and other technologies. It became apparent that depression is associated with significant changes in the
level of activation in certain regions of the brain. But the changes
were not consistent. In some depressed people, the prefrontal cortex was less active than normal, while in other depressed people it
was more active.
Recent research has begun to resolve this paradox. Scientists have
begun looking not for isolated brain regions that become more or
less active in depressed people, but for a network of regions that
consistently display correlated differences. Scientists have also studied depressed people who benefit from medication or psychotherapy, comparing their brain activity before and after treatment. Finally,
researchers have looked for differences between the brains of
depressed patients who respond to different kinds of treatment, as
well as to patients who do not respond to any of them.
These studies indicate that depression consistently affects the
same “depression network,” but that it affects it in different ways
continued on page 14…
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Brain Architecture:
The Cerebral Cortex and the Limbic System
The brain can be divided into a set of relatively distinct regions. Two that are
particularly relevant to nonprofit behavioral health care providers are the
cerebral cortex and the limbic system. These regions carry out different func-
The Limbic System
Buried beneath the cerebral cortex is
a set of brain structures that are collectively known as the limbic region.
tions have been associated with a number of psychological disorders.
These structures play a vital role in
motivation, emotions, memory, and
autonomic responses. The limbic
region has been nicknamed “the repThe Cerebral Cortex
tile brain,” in part because the structures it contains were present
The brain is covered with a series of layers known as the cerebral
early in the evolution in vertebrates. But this nickname gives the
cortex. The cerebral cortex interprets the signals received by the
misleading impression that the limbic system is distinct from the
brain and produces appropriate responses. Studies on individual
“higher” regions of the cerebral cortex. In fact, the limbic system
neurons in the cerebral cortex of monkeys have allowed scientists
has many connections to many parts of the cerebral cortex, and
to reconstruct the path that signals take through this region of the
each region relies on the other for its proper function.
brain. Consider a monkey that has been trained to push a button
To understand how the human brain produces emotions, it’s neceswhen it sees a picture of a dog. Within 60 millisecond of seeing a
to consider these cortico-limbic networks, rather than their isopicture of a dog, signals have already reached the visual cortex, a
lated parts. This aspect of the brain is most relevant to nonprofit
region in the back of the brain that processes visual information.
behavioral health care providers, and we will consider it in the folHere the signal is projected into thirty different fields, each spelowing section.
cialized for picking out certain features. Some are sensitive to
edges, some to shading, some to corners. Signals spread from these
The Feeling Brain
visual fields across the rest of the monkey’s cortex. In a region
Emotions, moods, and motivation are essential features of the
around its ears, known as the temporal cortex, these processed sigbrain. Both for humans and animals, they produce behaviors that
nals can be processed still further, allowing the recognition of more
can mean the difference between life and death. Neuroscientists
complicated features such as shapes and movement. The neurons
have made great strides in recent years in dissecting the networks
in these regions participate in the recognition that a certain
that produce emotions, and their insights may have a large impact
arrangement of light is a dog, as opposed to a cat.
on nonprofit behavioral health care. That’s because depression,
By 100 milliseconds, the signals have moved from the temporal
conduct disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other
cortex to the front of the monkey’s brain, just behind its forehead.
psychological disorders are increasingly being recognized as the
This region, known as the prefrontal cortex, sorts through rules for
result of dysfunctional emotional networks in the brain.
action—such as see dog, press button. From the prefrontal cortex,
Fear has an obvious role in survival. If you see a tree falling
the flow of information starts moving back towards the body. The
towards you, you immediately leap away without giving the
region of the cerebral cortex at the top of the monkey’s head conaction much thought, as your brain produces a fearful response
tains a map-like representation of its body. The neurons correwithout much conscious deliberation. Scientists have identified
sponding to the monkey’s hand begin firing, producing commands
some key nodes in the “fear network” responsible for this response.
that can control its hand. Within 160 milliseconds these command
One particularly important node is the amygdala, an almondsignals are moving down the spinal cord. The monkey’s finger
shaped cluster of neurons in the limbic region. One of the regions
presses the button only 180 milliseconds after the picture of the
to which the amygdala is linked is the thalamus, a gateway for sigdog appeared.
nals from the eyes and other senses. When emotionally charged
The human cerebral cortex works much the same way as a monstimuli enter the thalamus, they can then activate the amygdala.
key’s. However, over the course of human evolution it has grown
The amygdala may respond well before the cerebral cortex does.
into a much more complex structure, capable of more complex
Neuroscientists have documented this quick response by showing
thought. Several regions of the cerebral cortex make it possible for
subjects fear-provoking images, such as a pointed gun or a barkhumans to understand and produce language, for example. Other
ing dog, for just a tenth of a second. In these experiments, the
regions are particularly important for reasoning. Other regions
amygdala becomes active even though the subject is not aware of
help us to infer the intentions and thoughts of other people, while
what he or she just saw.
other regions maintain our sense of self.
tions, but they are intimately connected. Abnormal changes in these connec-
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Limbic System
Cerebral Cortex
Like the amygdala and other regions associated with emotions,
dopamine-producing neurons can be found in other animals. For a
rat, a reward might be a tasty piece of food in a garbage can, and its
cue might be the food’s odor. The dopamine released in response to
this sort of cue triggers widespread changes to the brain. It makes a
rat more alert to new stimuli, and encourages the formation of new
synapses between neurons. As a result, the rat can learn how to connect reliable cues to rewards.
This dopamine-based reward system is not fixed in the brain from
birth. Instead, experience can modify it as an animal (or a person)
learns to associate new cues with new rewards. If an animal encounters a reward unexpectedly, dopamine-producing neurons release
much higher levels, priming the brain to recognize new cues. As the
animal comes to recognize these new cues, the surge of dopamine
arrives between the cue and the reward, and becomes smaller.
Finally, once the association is fully discovered, the dopamine surge
comes immediately after the cue.
By responding to signs of potential threat, the amygdala can help produce a rapid action in response. It does so by communicating with the
hypothalamus, a small hormone-producing region of the limbic
region. The hypothalamus releases a hormone called corticotrophinreleasing factor (CFR), which travels to the pituitary gland, located
on the underside of the brain. In response to CFR, the pituitary gland
releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.
This hormone then travels through the body until it reaches the adrenal glands (which sit on the kidneys). ACTH triggers the adrenal
glands to release a third hormone, cortisol.
Cortisol spreads through the body, creating a wide range of rapid
change, such as rapid breathing and increased heart rate. It even produces changes in the brain. In very short order, the amygdala can prepare a person to cope with a dangerous situation. After the crisis
passes, the stress system allows the body to recover.
Some fearful reactions are hard-wired from birth. But other responses are learned. A person makes an association between an experience
and a painful outcome with the help of another region of the brain
known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays many different
roles in the formation of memories, but one of its most important
ones is helping to produce fear-provoking associations. These associations include not just the actual sources of pain, but the cues that
reliably precede them.
For example, scientists have run experiments in which they give people
mild electric shocks. If they turn on a light before applying the shock,
the light will eventually produce a galvanic skin response—part of the
stress response triggered by the amygdala. People who have suffered
damage to the amygdala do not develop this response to the light.
While some cues produce a stress response, others have just the opposite effect on the brain. They are reliable indicators of a reward, and
they produce a feeling of anticipation and expectation in the brain.
The human brain is motivated to seek rewards by a set of neurons
near the brain stem that produce a neurotransmitter called
dopamine. These neurons extend throughout much of the brain, and
when they produce dopamine, they can produce a dramatic change
in the brain’s functioning.
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Dopamine plays an essential role in every moment of a person’s waking life. It is vital for our ability to carry out complex body movements, such as walking, and for the steady control of our muscles. The
devastating motor disability that is caused by Parkinson’s disease is
caused by damage to the dopamine-producing system of the brain.
Cocaine and a number of other drugs produce their high by triggering the release of enormous amounts of dopamine in the brain. This
rush of dopamine can cause widespread changes to the brain, producing the symptoms of addiction.
One particularly important source of emotions is our relationships
with other people, ranging from positive emotions such as happiness
and love to negative emotions such as anger and sadness. Our “social
brain” is also adapted to infer the emotions and intentions of others.
Neuroscientists have identified “empathy networks” in the brain
which are activated by emotionally charged perceptions of other people. The amygdala not only becomes active in response to fear-inducing danger, such as a falling tree, but also to faces expressing fear.
When human subjects feel pain, a distinctive network becomes active
in the brain. Seeing pictures of other people experiencing pain activates that same network.
The limbic region, which helps generate emotional responses, is intimately connected to several regions on the cerebral cortex. These connections allow the cerebral cortex to regulate emotional responses. In
some cases, this regulation can be quite conscious. In one experiment,
scientists had subjects watch pornography while scanning their brains
with fMRI. Regions in the limbic region associated with sexual excitement became activated. The scientists then had the subjects consciously try to control their response. The scientists found that the limbic
regions then became less active, while regions of the prefrontal cortex
(known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) became more active.
Emotional regulation is often not conscious, however. One region of
the prefrontal cortex called the orbitofrontal cortex is believed to set
the value we place on things. It receives information from many
regions, including limbic regions and regions involved in memory.
The orbitofrontal cortex then exerts a strong influence over the amygdala and other regions important for emotional responses. When we
win at gambling, the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for translating the size of our winnings into the size of our emotional response.
Likewise, it is responsible for making the taste of chocolate pleasant
at first bite—but then sickening after we’ve eaten too much.
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… continued from page 11
in different individuals. According to studies at Emory University
and the University of Toronto, this network includes regions of the
brain in the limbic region, such as hippocampus, as well as regions
in the prefrontal cortex such as the orbitofrontal cortex. All of these
regions are known to be anatomically connected, and they all tend
to show correlated changes in neuroimaging studies.
The Emory and Toronto researchers see depression as a disruption
in the normal regulation of negative emotions. Depressed people
tend to respond more strongly to negative experiences and words,
perhaps because they summon up negative associations in their
memory with their hippocampus. The orbitofrontal cortex is able to
regulate these limbic responses, but in depressed patients it is less
activated than in normal individuals.
In some cases of depression, individuals compensate for this dysregulation by activating other regions of the prefrontal cortex.
These other regions of the prefrontal cortex have been associated
with rumination. This hyperactivation of the prefrontal cortex may
explain why some depressed patients become agitated, rather than
experiencing the apathy of other depressed patients.
This difference in the depression network is reflected in how
patients respond to treatments. In patients who respond to cognitive-behavioral therapy, the first changes occur in the prefrontal
cortex. Gradually the changes spread to the limbic region and other
areas deep within the brain. In contrast to this “top-down” pattern,
patients who respond to medication show a “bottom-up” pattern,
in which lower regions of the brain display changes in activity
before the prefrontal cortex.
What causes the dysregulation seen in the depression network in
the first place? Scientists have suspected that the 5HTT gene, discussed earlier, might play a role. But initially studies found only a
weak correlation between variations in the gene and the incidence
of depression. The correlation became much stronger, however,
when researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in London took
experience into account.
The scientists studied 847 members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary
Health and Development Study in New Zealand. These individuals had
been assessed at regular intervals through childhood. The researchers
tested the subjects to see whether they had two copies of the short 5HTT allele, two copies of the long 5-HTT allele, or one of each. They
also reviewed the assessments for their subjects to see whether they
had experienced a stressful life event.
The researchers found that carrying short or long alleles had a
significant effect on whether stressful life events led to adult
depression. Individuals with two long alleles did not have a higher
probability of a major depressive episode if they experienced severe
maltreatment as children. But, if they carried one copy of the short
allele and experienced severe maltreatment as a child, probability
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of depression was significantly raised. Carrying two copies of the
short allele raised it even further.
This particular study offers an important lesson about genetic
studies of psychological disorders. If a child turned out to have two
copies of the short 5-HTT allele, but did not experience severe maltreatment, he or she would not be destined to a life of depression.
Only the interaction of genes and experience, of nature and nurture, produces the outcome.
The overwhelming majority of people convicted of violent crimes
show multiple psychopathological disorders. Discovering the biological underpinnings of these disorders may help reduce abnormally
aggressive behavior. This search is a difficult one, in part because
aggression is a symptom of a wide range of recognized disorders,
ranging from schizophrenia to antisocial personality disorder to
PTSD. It appears that many different brain dysfunctions can produce
abnormal aggressive behavior.
Studies of animals such as mice and monkeys show that aggression is a normal component of behavior. Competition can produce
aggression in normal animals, for example, whether for food or
mates. Just as the limbic region can produce a rapid fear response,
it can also quickly trigger aggressive behavior in response to a
threat. Studies suggest that these aggressive responses can be
inhibited by regions of the prefrontal cortex that recognize that an
ambiguous situation does not in fact pose a threat. Abnormal
aggression may result from weak activity in the prefrontal cortex,
or unusually strong activity in the limbic region. Other studies suggest that violent behavior may normally be inhibited by the human
brain’s “empathy network.” Perceiving suffering in others, according to this theory, prevents an individual from behaviors that would
produce more suffering. If this empathy network is somehow damaged, it may become unable to regulate aggressive behavior.
Studies have shown that violent psychopaths do not show the
brain response seen in normal people when presented with pictures
of sad faces.
Studies on the genetic roots of violent behavior in the past have
been ambiguous. It’s long been known that boys who are exposed
to abuse at a young age are more likely to develop conduct disorder, antisocial personality symptoms, and even to become violent
offenders. But maltreatment only increases the risk of later criminality by about 50%. Why should some boys who suffer serious
abuse manage to avoid developing antisocial behaviors, while others do not?
A number of neuroscientists have suspected that genetic differences might be part of the answer, but until recently their evidence
has been inconclusive. Much of their attention has been focused on
a gene called MAOA, which produces an enzyme that breaks down
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neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Mice in which the MAOA
gene is experimentally removed become more aggressive than normal mice. In humans, a rare genetic disorder can completely shut
down production of the MAOA enzyme; a study of a Dutch family
with this disorder found that like the mice, they also showed high
levels of antisocial behavior.
This family may represent a rare extreme case of MAOA’s effect
on aggression. But other variations of the gene are common, and
they are known to lead to low and high levels of the MAOA
enzyme in the brain. Neuroscientists have looked for a correlation
between these common variants and antisocial behavior, but for
years their results were inconclusive.
The Institute of Psychiatry researchers described earlier in the section on depression have found that antisocial behavior can only be
understood as an interplay of genes and experience. They genotyped over 1,000 individuals who had been assessed regularly
throughout childhood and young adulthood. They recorded whether
individuals had an MAOA allele that produced high levels of the
enzyme or low levels. They then examined the records of the subjects to see whether there was evidence of maltreatment during
childhood. Finally, they noted how the subjects scored on tests that
assess conduct disorder, disposition towards violence, and antisocial
personality disorder. They also noted whether the subjects were
convicted for violent offenses.
The researchers found that high levels of antisocial behavior were
strongly correlated with a combination of low levels of MAOA and
severe maltreatment. Some 85% of subjects with both risk factors
ended up displaying antisocial behavior. People with high levels of
MAOA were far less likely to turn out this way. On its own, however, the low-MOAA allele does not automatically lead to antisocial
behavior. In fact, people with the low MAOA allele who experienced no maltreatment as children were no more likely to become
antisocial than those with a high MAOA allele.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Neuroscientists are finding that post-traumatic stress disorder—
which may be brought on by physical abuse, sexual abuse, or other
traumas—is associated with significant changes to the brain. The
brain, as we’ve seen, responds to stress with the release of hormones such as cortisol. While the stress response is useful in short
bursts, stress that is extremely intense or sustained can be harmful.
For example, the hippocampus, which helps regulate the stress
response, can become damaged by cortisol. Neuroimaging has
shown that the hippocampus of people suffering from PTSD tends
to be reduced in volume. In one study of Vietnam veterans with
PTSD, the loss ranged as high as 26%.
Since the hippocampus is important to both responding to stress
and storing memories, PTSD may alter both of these functions.
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PTSD can also damage regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in
regulating emotions. As a result, traumatic memories can trigger
intense emotions that cannot be inhibited. At the same time, however, the damage to the hippocampus can cause difficulty retrieving
other memories, much like the loss of memory that comes with old
age. PTSD’s effects on the prefrontal cortex can also interfere with
the region’s role in attention and cognition.
Diagnosis and Treatment
When cardiologists examine a patient, they make quantitative biological measurements of the heart and arteries. This information
helps cardiologists to make a diagnosis. Cardiologists can then use
an algorithm to decide on the best treatment of the patient, taking
into consideration these measurements, along with information
about genetics, medical conditions, and other risk factors.
Unfortunately, there is no such objective algorithm, based on biological measurements, available for psychological disorders. Without
such algorithms it can be difficult to accurately diagnose psychological disorders. For instance, borderline personality disorder and PTSD
may seem similar in observing the behavior of a person, but
research now suggests that their underlying biology is quite distinct.
Neuroscientists however are optimistic that algorithms for psychological disorders may emerge in the future.
Consider the research described earlier on the neuroimaging of
depression. The brain of a person diagnosed with depression tends
to have a pattern of activation that is markedly different from a
healthy person. It may therefore become possible in the future to
diagnose depression with the aid of neuroimaging. What’s particularly significant about this possibility is that neuroimaging has the
potential to distinguish between different types of depression.
Scientists have identified distinctive patterns of connectivity in the
brains of depressed patients who later responded well to cognitive
behavioral therapy, to medication, and to other treatments. Thus,
neuroimaging not only can help with the diagnosis of depression
but could also give an indication about what sort of treatment
would be most likely to work in a given patient.
Diagnostic tests may also emerge from recent research on the
expression of genes during psychological disorders. When genes
become active in a cell, their DNA code is converted into a copy,
called messenger RNA. Messenger RNAs are then ferried to cellular
factories called ribosomes, where they become templates for building proteins. To study the genes that are active in cells, scientists
split the cells open and extract the RNA. They then put the RNA in
a microarray, a device that contains molecules that bind specific
messenger RNA molecules. By identifying the messenger RNA molecules produced in a cell, scientists can discover which of its genes
are active.
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Given the changes in brain activity documented in psychological
disorders, it would not be surprising to find a corresponding change
in gene expression. Obviously, extracting neurons from the brain to
document these changes is not a practical option. But a team of
Israeli scientists recently decided to see whether post-traumatic
stress disorder might produce distinctive changes to white blood
cells. They were motivated by previous research that had shown
significant changes in immune activity in response to stress and in
PTSD. They took blood samples from individuals who were admitted
to an emergency room after a traumatic experience such as a car
accident. One month after the blood sample was taken, the
researchers followed up with the subjects to test them for PTSD,
and then repeated the test at four months. The researchers found
that they could distinguish between people who developed PTSD
from those who did not by their unique pattern of gene expression
in their white blood cells (Segman 2005).
If this study can be replicated, it might offer a promising way to
quickly and accurately diagnose people at risk of developing PTSD
after a traumatic incident. Psychological assessments that are currently used do not do a very good job of predicting the long-term
development of PTSD, possibly because they cannot distinguish its
symptoms from transient responses to trauma. A person with gene
expression patterns indicating a high risk of PTSD might then become
a candidate for treatments for traumatic memories (see below).
Electric Stimulation
As we've seen, some psychological disorders are associated with
unusually high or low electrical activity in certain regions of the
brain. Scientists are investigating a number of ways to alter this
activity with pulses of electricity or magnetism.
Deep Implants
Electrodes surgically implanted in the brain can produce highfrequency electric impulses that can alter the signals produced
by neighboring neurons. In the 1990s, people suffering from
Parkinson’s disease received electrodes implanted in the basal
ganglia, a region of the brain that coordinates movements of
the body. The implants altered the activity of the basal ganglia,
leading to dramatic improvement in the control the patients had
over their bodies.
Neuroscientists are now investigating how the same surgical
techniques can be applied to other disorders of the brain, including
psychological disorders. As discussed earlier in this report, scientists
at the University of Toronto and Emory University had identified a
network of brain regions that are affected by depression. They
noted that one region was consistently overactive in depressed
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late. This is also a region that becomes active in healthy individuals
when they think about sad memories. In all patients who overcame
depression, the subgenual cingulate became less active. One reason
for the central importance of this region is its connection to many
other regions in the depression network. Changes in activity in the
subgenual cingulate can thus have a widespread effect.
The researchers hypothesized that electrodes implanted near the
subgenual cingulate in depressed patients could reduce the activity
of the region. If the subgenual cingulate was as important as they
believed, the reduction of its activity might reduce the symptoms of
depression. To test this hypothesis, the researchers selected six
patients with severe depression that had not responded to medication, psychotherapy, or shock therapy. Surgeons implanted electrodes around the subgenual cingulate in each of the subjects.
All of the patients soon reported a sudden change, described as a
sudden calmness or lightness by some. Four of the six patients
experienced a striking and sustained remission that was sustained
six months after the surgery. PET scans revealed changes in brain
activity seen in depressed patients who had recovered with the
help of medication.
If these results are replicated, they may herald a new chapter in
the treatment of psychological disorders. As discussed earlier, other
disorders such PTSD appear to produce distinctive changes in the
normal patterns of brain networks. People who do not respond to
psychotherapy or medication for these conditions may someday
also benefit from deep brain stimulation.
Other Methods of Electrical Stimulation
Deep brain stimulation appears promising, but it does have the drawback of requiring surgery. But other noninvasive methods exist for
altering the electrical activity of the brain. Electroconvulsive therapy
(ECT) has been in use for decades. Early applications of ECT generated a great deal of controversy about side effects such as memory
loss, but it is currently considered safe and effective. Only now are
scientists beginning to understand how ECT affects the brain.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is another external
means of altering electrical activity in the brain. Rather than applying electrical current to the scalp as in ECT, TMS produces a local
magnetic field that interacts with the electric fields produced by
neurons. Typically, TMS is administered with a small wand-shaped
instrument held a few inches from a subject’s head. Depending on
where the instrument is positioned, it can alter the electric activity
in a desired region of the brain. Typically, TMS shuts down electrical
activity in a small region of the brain for a few minutes.
Some studies have found that TMS can improve symptoms in
depression and PTSD. However, meta-analysis of these studies does
not show a significant change. A number of research groups are
studying TMS to learn how to make it more effective.
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Over the past twenty years, medication has become increasingly
common for the treatment of psychological disorders such as
depression, PTSD, and other conditions commonly encountered
by nonprofit behavioral health care providers. While these drugs
have brought relief to many, they are not panaceas by any
means. In many cases, they do not relieve symptoms. And as the
recent controversy over suicide rates in teenagers taking antidepressants has shown, they may have serious side effects in a
small portion of the population.
It is difficult to foresee what sort of medications will be available
in twenty years, but some current trends offer some hints. In the
past, trial-and-error experimentation has dominated the search for
new antidepressants and other drugs for psychological disorders.
Increasingly, scientists are trying to understand the underlying neurobiology of these disorders in order to target treatments more
effectively. PTSD, for example, has been associated with damage to
the hippocampus. That link has led some researchers to test drugs
that have been found to foster neuron growth in the hippocampus
or to alter its ability to take up neurotransmitters. In both cases,
these medications have helped restore memory. Research on how
traumatic memories are initially laid down in the brain has led to
some speculations about blocking the encoding of traumatic events
in long-term memory. A person who survived a terrorist attack
might take a medication within a day that might stop the event
from spiraling into full-blown PTSD. At the moment, however, this
remains speculation.
Another important area of research is pharmacogenomics—the
study of how different genotypes can influence the effectiveness
and side-effects of psychiatric medications. There is good reason to
believe, for example, that people with certain genotypes may not
be able to metabolize certain medications properly and will therefore not benefit from taking them. Likewise, it is possible that certain genotypes may cause some individuals to suffer serious sideeffects from certain medications while other genotypes do not pose
this risk. If these links could be established, genotyping might
become an important element in determining what sort of treatment is best for an individual patient.
While pharmacogenomics has received a great deal of press
recently, it remains a very new field that has a long way to go
before it influences how nonprofit behavioral health care providers
plan treatments. Only a handful of correlations have been published, and in many cases other researchers have failed to replicate
them. It is difficult to establish positive findings in part because the
response to medications probably depends on many genes, rather
than single ones. Since each of those genes exists as several alleles
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(variants), the potential number of combinations that have to be
tested explodes exponentially. And as we’ve already seen, the influence of genes often depends on the environmental influences with
which they interact. Nevertheless, pharmacogenomics is moving
forward rapidly and in ten or twenty years may help usher in a new
era of “personalized medicine.”
Psychotherapy and Other
“Non-medical” Treatments
While medication has become much more common for the treatment of psychological disorders, its increase does not spell the
doom of psychotherapy. In fact, neuroscience research is helping to
document how psychotherapy produces significant biological
changes in the brain. As discussed earlier, for example, patients
who respond positively to psychotherapy for depression show a distinctive “top-down” response in brain scans. Neuroimaging may
help psychotherapists track the progress of their patients, and may
also help determine which types of therapy are most effective for
various conditions.
In many cases, medication and psychotherapy can be more effective in combination than either is on its own. A simple example
would be a schizophrenic patient who cannot even have a rational
conversation without medication. Some researchers are exploring
how new insight from neuroscience may point to ways in which
medication and psychotherapy can work more effectively together.
For example, psychotherapy may act in some cases as “emotional
learning.” A patient with a phobia or PTSD may learn not to associate a particular cue with a feeling of fear. Decades of neurobiological research on learning indicate that it involves the formation of
new connections between neurons and the severing of old connections. Experiments on animals have shown that certain drugs
enhance this process, allowing animals to learn new tasks faster. In
other experiments, animals “unlearned” fear by learning that a particular cue no longer predicted a painful shock. Giving the animals
certain drugs speeded up this unlearning.
Inspired by these results, researchers recently used a similar
approach on people undergoing behavioral exposure therapy to
overcome acrophobia, a fear of heights. While undergoing the therapy, the subjects of the study took D-cycloserine, a cognitive
enhancer. The researchers found that the drug significantly
improved the therapy. After three months, 70% of subjects taking
the drug felt much improved, compared to only 25% of subjects
taking a placebo (Ressler 2004).
Finally, research on the genetics of psychological disorders provides support for traditional social work. This might seem surprising, given the traditional image of genes as “hard-wiring” behavior. But as described earlier in this report, the current consensus is
that genes can only predispose people to antisocial behavior,
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depression, and other psychological disorders. The environment
plays a powerful role in shaping a person’s behavior. In a 2005
review, the Institute of Psychiatry (London) researchers who pioneered this research argue that it shows how important nurse
home-visitation programs can be to the long-term well-being of
children. Long term studies have shown that children who were
abused did not have more conduct problems than non-abused
children if they were in nurse home-visitation programs.
(Eckenrode 2001) The Institute of Psychiatry team argues that
these programs can be particularly effective for children at genetic risk of antisocial behavior (Jaffee 2005).
Stem Cells
It is impossible to pick up a newspaper these days and not come
across a new story about the controversy over stem cell research.
Many scientists argue that stem cells could provide revolutionary
new treatments for a wide range of diseases, while others object to
some of the research on moral grounds, because it requires the
destruction of embryos. A look at the scientific evidence gathered
so far suggests that perhaps in the distant future stem-cell derived
treatments may have an impact on nonprofit behavioral health
care, but the other treatments described in this report are likely to
become a reality far sooner.
Stem cells are a special class of cells in the human body that can
develop into a wide range of different tissues. The cells that develop in the first few days after an egg is fertilized are believed to
have the capacity to give rise to any type of cell found in the adult
body if they get the right set of signals. As the embryo develops,
most cells begin to lose their flexibility. Neural stem cells, for example, can give rise to a wide range of neurons, but will not produce a
muscle or liver cell on their own. In the body of an adult, the vast
majority of cells have lost their ability to divide into new types.
However, a few populations of cells still retain some flexibility. Most
important for this discussion are the neural stem cells that survive
in the adult brain.
The discovery of these stem cells in recent years has come as a
big surprise to the scientific community. It was traditionally believed
that neurons in the adult brain could no longer produce new neurons. But neural stem cells can continue to divide, adding new neurons to the brain even into old age. These neural stem cells can only
be found in a few regions of the brain, including the hippocampus.
The hippocampus’s neural stem cells are responsible for the regrowth of neurons seen in people who recover from depression and
other psychological disorders.
It is conceivable that one might be able to treat these disorders
by surgically implanting stem cells in the hippocampus to encourage the growth of new neurons. Research on monkeys suggests it
might even be possible to harvest some neural stem cells from a
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patient, culture them in a laboratory until they had produced a
large number of stem cells, and then re-implant them in the hippocampus. Scientists have already begun experimenting with stem
cells to treat Parkinson’s disease, which kills dopamine-producing
cells. As exciting as these developments are, no one has performed
any stem cell experiments to directly test their potential to treat
psychological disorders. Moreover, stem cell therapy would require
invasive brain surgery. As a result, it is difficult to say when, if ever,
stem cell therapy will affect nonprofit behavioral health care.
Monitoring Treatment
Medications such as SSRIs can take weeks to reduce the observable
symptoms of depression and other psychological disorders. If a
patient fails to respond to the medication or suffers adverse side
effects, this long delay can cause serious problems. By recognizing
these disorders as being based in the brain, however, it may be possible to do a much more effective job of monitoring treatments. In
one promising study, researchers repeatedly scanned the brains of
depressed people who were prescribed medications. After six weeks,
some of the subjects enjoyed some relief from depressions while
others did not respond. Looking back at their scans, the researchers
observed significant changes in many of the patients who had
responded positively within a week of starting to take the medication. The early changes took place in subcortical regions; only when
cortical regions began to change weeks later did people begin to
report feeling better. Similar results have been found in studies on
psychotherapeutic treatment of depression. Neuroimaging may thus
become a useful tool for monitoring patient response to treatment.
Microarray tests of gene expression may also provide important
cues to how the brain responds to treatment.
In summary, developments in neuroscience over the last several
decades have laid the groundwork for a stronger integration of
medicine, science and technology into the behavioral health services delivered by traditional social service agencies. Immediately
available on the horizon for nonprofits are brain imaging technologies for use as diagnostic tools, treatment establishment and management protocols, and improved drugs to treat psychological disorders and enhance cognitive therapies. Behind those lie opportunities for neurosurgical intervention as treatments for behavioral
health issues. Just over the horizon, but considered by many to be
likely, research on genes will lead to further advances in treatment
and diagnosis strategies used in nonprofit behavioral health care.
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Laudan Y. Aron
dvances in basic neuroscience are producing unprecedented opportunities to better understand and even
redefine the pathophysiology of mental and addiction
disorders and develop new interventions to treat these
disorders. The new discoveries are challenging our ability to neatly
sort brain-based disorders into either neurological or psychiatric
conditions – in short, the mind-body distinction is blurring and it is
blurring quickly.1 As experts in the fields of neurology, psychiatry,
and psychology question how their areas of expertise can and
should relate to one another, an obvious question arises: what do
all these developments mean for behavioral health service
providers and consumers and their families? As new treatment
options and even “cures” for brain-based conditions are discovered, refined, and subjected to clinical trials, how will the organization, delivery, and funding of behavioral healthcare change, and
what might these changes mean for nonprofit behavioral health
agencies operating now?
This section provides a preliminary look at how advances in
neuroscience may affect the world of nonprofit behavioral
health. Most of the advances are still in the early stages of basic
scientific research, but there are strong pushes at the federal level
to link basic findings to field practice; indeed a variety of emerging biotechnologies are already being used successfully in some
clinical settings. For the most part, however, there has been little
systematic thinking about how leaders, managers, and clinicians
in nonprofit behavioral health agencies should prepare for these
changes. How can agencies proactively position themselves to
prepare for new treatments, services, or service system approaches that will be needed as neuroscience discoveries and technologies that are now “cutting edge” emerge into the mainstream
over the next several decades? The advances present exciting
challenges and opportunities for the field, but will also require
careful planning and management.
It is important to keep in mind that the changes being unleashed
by advances in neuroscience are not occurring in isolation. Many
forces are already changing the landscape of the behavioral health
industry and will set the stage for how well communities and indi1 See, for example, SC Yudofsky and RE Hales, “Neuropsychiatry and the Future of
Psychiatry and Neurology,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 159:8, August 2002; JB Martin,
“The Integration of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Neuroscience in the 21st Century,”
American Journal of Psychiatry, 159:5, May 2002; and ER Kandel, “Biology and the Future
of Psychoanalysis: A New Intellectual Framework for Psychiatry Revisited,” American
Journal of Psychiatry, 156:4, April 1999.
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vidual agencies are able to meet the opportunities and challenges
of the neuroscience revolution. These include an ongoing emphasis
on quality and accountability through the use of managed care and
disease management models; pressures to narrow the current gap
between research and practice by implementing “evidence-based
practices;” adopting sophisticated real-time clinical and financial
management information systems through the use of electronic
medical records and other cutting edge information technologies;
encouraging the integration of behavioral health into primary care
and other community-based settings such as schools, juvenile justice facilities, Head Start programs, etc.; and the general consolidation of the behavioral health industry into companies and agencies
that are much larger, medically sophisticated, and more businesslike in focus. The ability of individual nonprofit behavioral health
agencies to respond to advances in neuroscience may very well
depend on how well they are managing these current industry
trends right now.
In this section, we examine the implications of these advances in
three broad domains: clinical, institutional/systemic, and societal.
Clinical implications include the impact of neuroscientific advances
on the providers of care, consumers and their families, and the
process and outcomes of behavioral healthcare. The
institutional/systemic domain includes such factors as the organizational and administrative practices of service delivery, and the system of providers and institutions needed to meet demands for new
types of care including how services and service structures are
organized, financed, and regulated. Finally, the broader societal
implications cover a variety of ethical issues that are likely to arise
as neuroscientific advances move downstream from the laboratories of basic research scientists into clinical and community-based
settings. A final section considers what steps nonprofit behavioral
health providers might take to prepare for the changes that will
come from the neuroscience revolution.
Clinical Implications
of Neuroscience Advances
Groundbreaking findings in the neurosciences are being reported
daily, but ultimately their real value for the field of behavioral
health will need to be established through new treatments that are
effective on behavioral grounds, treatments that improve the quality of life among individuals who have mental illness and addiction
disorders. The path from basic scientific research (a discovery) to a
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treatment that works in a controlled research setting (an evidencebased practice), and finally to a treatment that works in routine
practice settings (a practice-based evidence) is a long one, and
behavioral health agencies have a very important role to play in
this journey. Once the new treatments do penetrate the evidence
base and start becoming “treatment as usual,” they are likely to
affect every aspect of current clinical practices in behavioral health
agencies: from how clients are referred into treatment, to assessments, diagnosis, and treatment planning, to core treatment mechanisms, supportive services, and aftercare. Treatment inputs, including staffing, client characteristics, and service structure, are also
likely to evolve. Depending on what treatments emerge (and
when) and what services are reimbursed (and at what level), there
may also be fundamental changes in the populations served by
behavioral health agencies.
The new advances hold particular promise for diagnosing and
treating youth with behavioral and emotional problems, post traumatic stress disorders, aggressive outbursts, sexual abuse, physical
abuse, impulse control issues, and substance abuse problems.
Traditional treatments for youth with these problems have been
quite ineffective. Many behavioral health providers and other
experts involved in serving this population describe the serious
challenges they face when helping these youth, including increasing levels of acuity, greater shares of children with multiple psychiatric diagnoses and on multiple medications, and complications
presented by underlying medical conditions (e.g., hyperthyroidism).
Often the children have failed many other settings or systems (e.g.,
foster homes, group homes, attempts at medication management)
before finally coming to a residential treatment center. But
providers interviewed as part of this study have commented that
many of the children are on psychiatric medications that are “not
compatible with their biologies” and there is a lot of “educated
guessing” when it comes to their treatment. They also describe
“flying by the seat of our pants” when it comes to treating these
youth, engaging in activities for which there is “no evidence,” and
candidly sharing that as an agency they are “thinking about survival, not about best treatments.”
As our understanding of the neurobiological bases of behavioral
health grows, individual clinicians and agencies will need to implement new practices and treatment paradigms. This process will
involve many activities including assessing program, clinician and
support staff readiness; developing knowledge about the new
treatments; evaluating the degree of substantive change required
to move from current practice to the new state of service delivery;
examining various barriers to implementation; and identifying supports needed for the change process.
In addition to supporting basic science research, the National
Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has established among its
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The Neurobiology
of Adolescence
Our understanding of the neurobiology of adolescence is
leading to a greater recognition that many mental disorders
(and concurrent changes in brain function) begin during
this phase of development, and some practitioners are
already incorporating this new way of thinking into their
clinical practice. Neuropsychiatric approaches are being used
to help with both diagnosis and treatment. One residential
treatment center in California, The Sycamores, is using
SPECT imaging to “add functional data to the clinical presentation” and thereby help psychiatrists make better
informed decisions with respect to both diagnosis and treatment. Another residential treatment center dedicated to
serving impulsively aggressive youth has developed the following criteria for determining if a child should be treated
with neuropsychiatric interventions: having a normal range
of intelligence; dangerous to self or others; recidivism; not
benefiting from current treatment; impulse control issues;
pathological aggression; and evidence of brain impairment.2
They define “pathological aggression” as a pattern of aggressive behavior that occurs with little or no provocation, is
unplanned and impulsive, and without either social or
material gain. The behavior is also intense, destructive and
repetitive, and is almost always caused by a brain dysfunction. Evidence of brain impairment, the last criterion listed
earlier, includes any of the following: impulsivity (e.g.,
aggressive behavior that is impulsive rather than planned);
poor planning skills (e.g., runaway with no plan, no money,
nowhere to go); short attention span (e.g., attention too
short for group therapy); laboratory evidence (e.g., abnormal CT scan, MRI, EEG); pathological aggression (e.g., violent behavior with no provocation, no gain); history of neurological disease (e.g., seizure disorder, encephalitis); neuropsychological tests abnormal (e.g., VIQ-PIQ > 30 points);
repetitive rage behavior (e.g., requiring seclusion and
restraint); toxic exposure in gestation (e.g., substance abuse
by mother in pregnancy); and prior head injury with LOC
(e.g., loss of consciousness – LOC > 1 hour).
This same center, the Meridell Achievement Center, reports
that neuropsychiatric treatments are yielding positive outcomes for 86 to 90 percent of impulsively aggressive adolescents in long-term residential centers.3 They define positive
outcomes as no further violent episodes, no re-hospitalization, no runaways, no incarceration, and following an aftercare plan with continuation of school (or work) following
discharge. Similar studies of outcomes following treatment
in short term, acute settings are underway.
2 See, for example, information posted on the website of the Meridell Achievement Center
in Liberty Hill, Texas at
3 See website information of UHS Neurobehavioral Systems at
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highest priorities the translation of basic scientific discoveries
into new interventions that will relieve the suffering of people
with mental disorders and ensure that the new approaches are
available to and used by diverse populations and in diverse settings. Building on the Decade of the Brain, NIMH is now launching the Decade of Translation with the goal of bringing recent
discoveries from genomics, neuroscience, and behavioral science
to new and more effective innovative behavioral and pharmacological treatments, and with an ultimate goal of preventing and
even curing mental illness.4 Individuals and agencies can and
should take full advantage of the many efforts to disseminate
new treatment approaches, and may even (as one Alliance member reported doing) proactively create “a research-friendly environment” so that other clinicians, researchers, and experts can
study innovative new approaches within their agencies and with
their clients (participation in research studies is discussed again
later in this report). As new effective treatments become better
known and more widely available, behavioral agencies will need
to decide which treatments they will need to offer their clients
(and how) and how far along the continuum of the medicalization of behavioral health they can and want to go. At the very
4 NIMH Strategic Plans and Priorities,
least, clinicians should be trained in identifying those conditions
for which innovative effective treatments are available (even if
their own agency does not provide it) and directing their patients
to other agencies or settings where they can learn more and
seek new treatments if they choose.
Although clinical applications of advances in neuroscience are
only beginning to penetrate treatment protocols (and the research
base on which these protocols are usually based), there has been
widespread recognition and concern about the existing gap
between research and practice or “science and service” in the
treatment of mental illness and addiction disorders. In 1998, the
Institute of Medicine issued a major report entitled Bridging the
Gap Between Practice and Research: Forging Partnerships with
Community-Based Drug and Alcohol Treatment, and one year later
the 1999 Report of the Surgeon General on Mental Health5 reported that “a gap persists in the broad introduction and application of
these [research-based] advances in services delivery to local communities, and many people with mental illness are being denied the
most up-to-date and advanced forms of treatment.”
Adopting evidence-based practices does not mean a wholesale
5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon
General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes
of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.
Bridging Research & Practice
New strategies have been developed to bridge the gap between research and practice and to disseminate “state-ofthe-art” treatment protocols. A variety of well-respected organizations and agencies are engaging in initiatives
designed to disseminate evidence-based practices (i.e., clinical and administrative practices that have been proven
to consistently produce specific, intended results). These include:
The American Psychiatric Association Practice Guidelines:
The Human Services Research Institute website for evidence-based practices:
The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality:
The Centre for Evidence-Based Mental Health:
The Cochrane Collaboration:
The Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC) and the
American College of Mental Health Administration
(ACMHA) have jointly developed a step-by-step manual
for behavioral health providers entitled Turning
Knowledge into Practice: A Manual for Behavioral Health
Administrators and Practitioners About Understanding
and Implementing Evidence-Based Practices (Fall 2003).
This manual is available online at
The National Evidence-Based Practices Project (Toolkit
The National Guideline Clearinghouse has diagnostic,
assessment, and treatment guidelines:
The National Association of State Mental Health Program
Directors (NASMHPD) Research Institute’s rationale for
establishing a Center for Evidence-Based Practices,
Performance Measurement, and Quality Improvement:
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rejection of business as usual. There is a continuum between the
worlds of practice and science, and both ends of this continuum
can and should inform one another: practice needs to be informed
by science, but science also need to be informed by practice—
something that has come to be called “practice-based evidence.”
Because tightly controlled scientific studies are often not clinically
representative, meaning the client populations, service providers,
and clinical settings do not correspond to those found in realworld situations, evidence-based practices often need to be
adjusted by the realities encountered in actual clinical settings.
Still the word “evidence” underlies both the concepts of evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence, and evidence
of outcomes is key to both. Adopting a strategy of practice-based
evidence requires that agencies engage in systematic efforts to
understand and monitor clinical outcomes of specific treatments
as they are applied to specific sub-populations of interest.
It is also important to recognize that scientifically validated treatments do not exist for every condition, and that the level and
quality of science available to support a given intervention varies
from one intervention to another. The science base is also continually evolving, so one cannot simply adopt evidence-based practices and be done with it. Because of this, the real key is for
provider systems and clinicians to adopt an ongoing philosophy of
“evidence-based thinking.” Doing this assures that one is at the
forefront of existing science-based practice, and is well positioned
to take advantage of neuroscientific advances as these too begin
to be tested and penetrate the evidence-base on which state-ofthe-art treatments are based. Of course adopting evidence-based
practices—neuroscientific and others— has important advantages for individual behavioral health agencies: these include clinical, quality control, administrative, financial, and political reasons
(see the Turning Knowledge into Practice manual referenced on
page 21 for a fuller discussion of each of these advantages).
It is well known that susceptibility to certain mental and behavioral disorders is affected by social, cultural, and ethnic factors,
and especially gender. These same factors influence response to
treatment, access to behavioral healthcare, and resiliency to environmental influences on behavioral health. It is unclear how the
new diagnostic and treatment approaches emerging from neuroscience will affect different sub-groups of people, but many
observers have pointed to the importance of narrowing disparities
between ethnic minorities and other underserved populations in
their access to (and use of) high-quality treatment services,
increasing the diversity of the populations studied, and broadening the diversity of behavioral health researchers and practitioners. Behavioral health agencies should keep these goals in mind
as they make strategic decisions about their staffing, service
structures, and other treatment inputs. Depending on how things
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play out, one can easily envision the new advancements giving
large numbers of people from underserved populations access to
high-quality behavioral health treatments for the first time in their
lives (this is especially true if the treatments are shown to be
more cost-effective than what has traditionally been offered); on
the other hand, there is also the potential for a widening of the
gap between those who do and do not have access to effective
care for brain-based disorders: a neuropsychiatric well-being
divide, similar to the “digital divide” created by the revolution in
computer technology and information science.
In discussing the implications of advances in neuroscience for
nonprofit behavioral health agencies and their clients, few
observers are predicting the end of psychological or clinical counseling as we know it. Indeed, several people thought that the
importance and effectiveness of more “traditional” psychosocial
therapies and supports may increase as a result of our improved
understanding of brain-based mental health and addiction disorders. One appropriate response to our new understanding of the
brain, its plasticity and malleability, and its responsiveness to nurturing and environmental influences, would be a better recognition of the value of traditional psychosocial supports, especially
among children and adolescents. As the National Academy of
Science concluded in its report From Neurons to Neighborhoods:
Enormous potential exists at the intersection of child
development research, neuroscience, and molecular and
behavioral genetics to unlock some of the enduring mysteries about how biogenetic and environmental factors
interact to influence developmental pathways. These
include: (a) understanding how experience is incorporated
into the developing nervous system and how the boundaries are determined that differentiate deprivation from
sufficiency and sufficiency from enrichment; (b) understanding how biological processes, including neurochemical and neuroendocrine factors, interact with environmental influences to affect the development of complex
behaviors, including self-regulatory capacities, prosocial or
antisocial tendencies, planning and sustained attention,
and adaptive responses to stress; (c) describing the dynamics of gene-environment interactions that underlie the
development of behavior and contribute to differential
susceptibility to risk and capacity for resilience; and (d)
elucidating the mechanisms that underlie nonoptimal
birth outcomes and developmental disabilities.6
6 See pp 13-14 of National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2000) From Neurons to
Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Committee on Integrating the
Science of Early Childhood Development. Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, eds. Board
on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and
Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press
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Rather than the new neuroscientific technologies and pharmaceuticals displacing counseling and psychosocial supportive interventions, the technologies may very well help demonstrate how the
brain can be retrained through psychotherapy and even supplement
its effectiveness (e.g., with new medications). The new knowledge
and technology may provide evidence in support of more and better investments of the public’s resources in effective behavioral
health interventions of all kinds (neurobiological and psychological)
and at all points in the lifecycle (from early intervention and prevention early in life to treatments and cures later in life).
Another expert consulted for this project observed that as the
complexity and technical sophistication of treatment options
increase, there will be more need for education and advocacy of
consumers and their families, as well as for high-quality psychosocial rehabilitation. Consumers are likely to need much more help
understanding and navigating the array of treatment options
(including privacy/legal issues, exercising informed choice, and
providing informed consent). The relationship between behavioral
health providers and consumers will also be affected by direct
marketing of new technologies to consumers. Increasingly, consumers will be asking providers for a given pharmaceutical,
genetic test, or brain image, and clinicians should be prepared to
respond to these requests and deal with a lot of misinformation.
Equally important will be the need for post-treatment management and recovery as home- and community-based supports
replace institutional ones. Individuals and families who have
been living with life-long behavioral illnesses will need a great
deal of time and support to become fully-informed participants,
select therapies that are well-matched to their individual needs,
adhere to the therapies and manage medications reliably, and
adjust to the new treatments and their effects. The human, supportive, and rehabilitative dimensions of recovery should not be
undervalued, and may even be the key to the retention and success of some of the new therapeutic discoveries. Another head of
a large behavioral health agency agreed with this general point,
noting that advances in neurology “will not threaten services
such as case management, coaching/mentoring, and continuum
services for children.” As an analogy, he commented that the
great advances in orthopedic surgery and other procedures have
not led to the demise of physical therapy. He did note, however,
that the neuroscience advances in behavioral health may lead to
changes in how clinical services are sequenced or ordered.
Institutional/Systemic Implications
of Neuroscience Advances
The effects of advances in neuroscience for behavioral healthcare
extend far beyond specific clinical approaches or treatments. In
addition to the major trends reshaping the industry right now, disCopyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
coveries in neuroscience are accelerating the medicalization of
behavioral health as a field, and this will create a need for new
professional skills, new technological equipment, new service delivery structures, and new cost reimbursement strategies. While these
changes can occur within a single behavioral health agency, they
are much more likely to be realized through new partnerships and
institutional relationships, including linkages between traditional
behavioral health agencies and other types of providers, such as
psychiatric and medical-surgical hospitals, and even private diagnostic and screening centers with sophisticated imaging and other
medical equipment.
Few of the behavioral health providers consulted for this project
have started thinking about new institutional arrangements they
may need as a result of neuroscientific advances. Many of them
instead are focused on surviving in what is an increasingly competitive market, have merged with other agencies, or been
approached with take-over offers. Even relatively large, wellmanaged behavioral health systems acknowledge they may not
survive the competitive forces of the next five years, and will need
to grow rapidly and demonstrate greater effectiveness and
accountability to both consumers and payors. Smaller mom-andpop agencies (even if they are among the oldest and have the
trust and respect of the community) acknowledge feeling “light
years behind” some of their counterpart agencies that have realtime clinical and financial management systems, are practicing
“telepsychiatry,” etc. These same agencies admit to not knowing
how they can survive if they remain small, “mission-driven”
organizations reliant on sliding-scale fee structures and community fundraisers to cover their operating costs.
In order to survive, most of these agencies will need to enter
into new partnerships, not just with other behavioral health
agencies but also with new types of service providers and institutions. Some of the partnerships to emerge, especially at the
early stages of working with new professionals and new technologies, may be more serendipitous. One residential treatment
center in California, the Sycamores, has started working with a
private for-profit brain imaging center to do SPECT scans of children in residential treatment. Initially, the agency’s use of
SPECT began with just a small set of families with very proactive parents struggling to understand the behavioral problems of
their children, but as the agency saw the benefits of incorporating this new information into their diagnostic and treatment
planning they sought additional funds to make the scans available to more and more children. The agency also sought out
funding from a local foundation to support a research project to
study what difference adding scan information to the assessment had on outcomes for the children (the study has run into
some problems but is ongoing).
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Having flexible or dedicated funds to explore new and innovative
technologies can be critical in an industry where reimbursement
drives treatment offerings. Currently, public funding streams for
behavioral health services (mainly state Medicaid agencies, but also
state and county mental health and substance abuse authorities,
and education, child welfare, and juvenile justice agencies) do not
reimburse for sophisticated technologies except perhaps pharmaceuticals. When asked about new treatments to emerge from neuroscience research, behavioral health providers initially reacted by
asking, “Who is going to pay for it and will it work for our population?” But later they conceded that most of what they do is driven
by cost-benefit analyses, and “if there is good data supporting a
given [new] intervention, then we can get funding for it.” They also
noted that monitoring an acutely chronically suicidal child 24 hours
a day, seven days a week entails huge costs, so even if the new
treatments are quite expensive, they may be more cost-effective
than current treatment approaches.
A recent report from the American College of Mental Health
Administration’s (ACHMA) workgroup on financing results and
value in behavioral health services puts financial structures front
and center in the behavioral health industry:
The behavioral health field has learned much in the last 50
years about what it wants and needs, and how to get it by
using financing mechanisms that provide the right incentives and avoid perverse ones. Above all, the field has
learned that finances drive behavior. A statement of values, a strategic plan, research on evidence-based practices,
and even regulatory efforts are critical, but they cannot
overcome the reality that what is paid for is what will be
provided. Frequently, what is paid for well or easily, or
with a high reimbursement rate, will have more influence
on which services are provided and in what manner they
are provided than the professional standards or the nonfinancial actions of system leaders and stakeholders
(emphasis added).
The workgroup also identified many creative financing mechanisms behavioral health providers continue to create and test with
different goals and objectives in mind. These include risk corridors
to increase incentives to provide care; risk-adjusted rates to provide
care to those most in need, and case rates to increase treatment
flexibility and creativity for specific individuals and families. Other
financing innovations are also being considered in the field: with
network financing, funding streams are combined to purchase a
continuum of care. Rather than subcontract with numerous programs to provide a fixed number of units of service in specific categorical areas, all elements of a system of care are part of a single
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
purchase agreement that specifies performance targets, coordination and collaboration requirements, quality management expectations, and 24/7 coverage (this allows the purchaser to hold all subcontractors accountable, not only to the purchaser but to each
other as well). The ACHMA acknowledges, however, that financing
mechanisms alone cannot substitute for high quality treatment
services. As they explain:
Because of the power of financing, behavioral health
system leaders sometimes see a change in the financing
mechanism as the chief method for effecting service delivery changes. While financing mechanisms can assist or
impede the successful implementation of system values or
purchasers’ desires for beneficiaries, they cannot, in and of
themselves, form the base of a high-quality, high-value system or a set of services. Systems do not change overnight—
to achieve high-value services with the desired outcomes
for the money spent, the process must have order and
must be planned for over a period of time. Changing the
financing mechanisms without articulating the desired outcomes or without being able to track those outcomes is
likely to result in just different but still ineffective financial
incentives, or in unintended consequences for services and
service recipients.7
Of course investments of public dollars are usually influenced by
public perceptions of social welfare needs and especially the role of
personal responsibility in the given problem. Personal responsibility
has been found to be the single greatest correlate of the values
driving decisions about resource allocation for mental health services.8 Indeed Corrigan and Watson (2003) advise stakeholders to use
advances in neuroscience to influence public thinking about mental
illness and its causes:
Advocates need to help policy makers replace notions such
as “people choose mental illness because of weak character” with more factual information such as “mental illness
is caused by a personally uncontrollable brain disorder.” In
fact, one research study showed that research participants
who were taught that people with mental illness are not
responsible for their mental illness showed significant
reductions in negative attitudes about and social distance
toward mental illness. (p.4)
8 PW Corrigan and AC Watson, “Factors That Explain How Policy Makers Distribute Resources
to Mental Health Services,” Psychiatric Services 54:501-507, April 2003.
7 See the American College of Mental Health Administration (ACHMA) Workgroup (2003)
“Financing Results and Value in Behavioral Health Services,” Administration and Policy in
Mental Health, 31(2): 85-110, p.88.
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
The Implications for Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care
As decision-makers and the public at large better understand the
biological basis of many mental and addiction disorders, there may
also be a greater willingness to support effective behavioral health
intervention in other sectors connected to the social services field,
including the criminal justice, education, housing, and child welfare
systems. As the clinical benefits of neuroscientific advances become
more widely available, these systems may well be expected to pay
for effective interventions benefiting the populations they serve.
Societal Implications
of Advances in Neuroscience
Advances in neuroscience will unleash a host of broader issues
for society. A new term, “neuroethics,” has even been coined to
describe the variety of social and ethical issues that will emerge
from both clinical neuroscience (neurology, psychiatry, psychopharmacology) and basic neuroscience (cognitive neuroscience, affective
neuroscience). Along with “classical” bioethical matters such as
safety issues, informed consent, and privacy, new technologies such
as functional neuroimaging, psychopharmacology, brain implants,
and brain-machine interfaces will give rise to new types of ethical
questions. Neuroethics as a field is still in its infancy, but some of
these new ethical questions are already being posed. As our ability
to measure unconscious motivation to behave in certain ways
improves, for example, what applications of “brainotyping” (analogous to genotyping) will be acceptable? Who can and should have
access to such information and for what uses or purposes (e.g.,
brain-based lie detection, sexual preferences, racial attitudes, and
mental health vulnerabilities and predispositions to violent crimes)?
There is a growing body of evidence that brain imaging can be
used to detect (rough measures of) various personality traits such
as extroversion, neuroticism, risk-aversion, pessimism, persistence,
and empathy. Who should have access to such brain-based information and under what circumstances? Many groups are potentially interested in such information: parents, schools, court systems,
residential treatment programs, employers, and even the government. Once we decide on the legitimate uses (and users) of such
information, how will it be protected from misuse and who will
enforce these protections?
Neuropsychiatric illness and wellness occur along a continuum
and most neuroscientific advances are being pursued to help
people with deficits in the areas of attention, memory, and affect.
But the same medications used for illness can (and are already
being used to) improve the attention spans, memories, and moods
of normal healthy people. Are enhancements of “normal” brainstates a legitimate use of neurocognitive medications and other
technologies? The safety and side effects of neurocognitive
9 See discussions by Martha J. Farah, Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the
University of Pennsylvania on the website of
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
enhancers must be studied with care, especially given the biological complexity and importance of the brain. But many social and
even philosophical questions relating to enhancement must also
be considered. Should neurocognitive enhancement become widespread, will individual adults, athletes, students, or job seekers who
choose not to enhance be at a substantial disadvantage, thus
introducing an element of coercion? Would outlawing or restricting
the use of neurocognitive enhancement not also be coercive? Dr.
Martha J. Farah of the University of Pennsylvania has also noted
that widespread enhancement would redefine regular human
behavior and runs the risk of “undermining the value and dignity
of hard work, medicalizing human effort and pathologizing a normal attention span.”9 This in turn may lead to “diagnostic creep”
whereby a behavior that was once thought to be within the range
of what is considered “normal” is now seen as impaired and in
need of a neurocognitive intervention.
Our increasing understanding of the physical causes of behavior
is also beginning to challenge popular notions of free will and
moral agency underlying the country’s legal system. Evidence
indicating neurological dysfunction is already being used in the
penalty phase of criminal trials. It seems only natural that as our
neuroscientific understanding of the brain grows, there will be a
greater willingness to understand “bad” and even criminal behavior in terms of poor brain function. Exactly how this will impact
our definition and operation of criminal justice is unclear. One
positive outcome is that there may be less stigma attached to
criminal behaviors that are brain-based; this in turn may lead to
more treatment and rehabilitation and less chronic incarceration
of people with serious mental illnesses. It is also very likely that
courts and other justice and even social service agencies will
increasingly mandate various neuropsychiatric interventions.
Courts already mandate batterers, pedophiles, drug addicts, and
others into various treatment programs (the vast majority of
which are ineffective), so as new promising neuropsychiatric
treatments become better known and available, there is every
reason to expect courts to “order” such treatment. Our new
understanding of the connections between the brain and behavior
may also lead to changes in how we define things such as moral
and legal responsibility and impaired consent. Even fundamental
notions such as free will and personal identity may be reconsidered and redefined.
Finally, it is important to think about the social justice aspects
of advances in neuroscience. The advances have the potential both
to create and remedy serious social inequities, especially among
groups who are already disenfranchised and/or experiencing discrimination: members of minority racial/ethnic groups, people with
learning disabilities or mental illnesses, chronically homeless people,
people who are repeatedly incarcerated, etc. Will access to neuro-
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
The Implications for Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care
scientific interventions that can be used for treatment and/or
enhancements be equally distributed, or will these technologies
add to the existing divide separating those with and without
money, power, and class privilege, and the “neurologically optimal”
child-rearing environments these advantages often provide?
Preferential treatment by public and private insurance providers of
conditions and disabilities more common among advantaged groups
should also be monitored with care.
It is unlikely that individual behavioral health clinicians (or even
agencies) will need to grapple with many of the profound questions
being raised by neuroethicists today. Most of these questions are
likely to be played out at the national level, through the courts, federal policy, and even national media, as is currently the case with
stem cell research and cloning. But individual behavioral health
agencies and their staff will certainly be involved in adopting various clinical protocols, protecting the security and privacy of their
administrative and clinical data, and ensuring that their clients are
fully informed and protected. The latter will be especially challenging if the clients are children or individuals unable to make treatment decisions on their own behalf.
Role of Nonprofit
Behavioral Health Care Providers
The neuroscience revolution and the new treatments it will yield
present the nonprofit behavioral health world with very exciting
opportunities. Taking advantage of these opportunities will require
that behavioral health providers increase their knowledge and
understanding of what the advances can and cannot do for their
clients. This knowledge should be based on information from scientifically reliable and reputable sources and clinicians should be prepared to educate and respond to consumers who may be misinformed by overly simplistic media reports or by marketers of pharmaceuticals, genetic testing, and imaging centers. In addition to
increasing their knowledge base, nonprofit behavior health
providers will need to think strategically about what other service
providers they should align themselves with (either collaboratively
or through mergers) in order to offer their clients the best care possible. In some cases, they may simply decide to refer certain consumers with certain conditions to other providers in the community.
One promising way of increasing knowledge and changing
agency practice is to create within one’s agency a “research friendly” environment that attracts premier researchers and research
institutions. Large-scale national clinical trials are often funded
very generously (in the millions of dollars) and involve significant
time and investments in professional development and clinician
training, information technology such as clinical decision support
systems (CDSSs), and other processes that engage multiple stakeholders and pave the way for changes in an organization’s culture
Copyright 2005, The Alliance for Children and Families
that are required before new treatment protocols can be accepted
and adopted with fidelity. Often very careful procedures are put in
place to ensure the informed consent and protection of all human
subjects involved in the study.
Whether involved in clinical trials or not, to prepare for participation in the neuroscience revolution, nonprofit behavioral health
agencies must commit themselves to rigorous outcomes collection
and evaluation. By collecting high quality treatment and outcome
data evaluating the effectiveness of their services and engaging in
a process of continuous improvement, nonprofit behavioral health
providers can demonstrate the effectiveness of their services to
multiple stakeholders, and in the process, contribute to the emerging dialogue around the integration of neuroscience with nonprofit
behavioral health care.
In summary, nonprofit providers interested in integrating
recent neuroscientific developments into their behavioral health
practices should:
• Become informed and knowledgeable on both the promises
and limitations of the new advancements, relying on authentic
scientific literature, and not popular media, for credible and
objective information.
• Adopt evidence-based practice as the protocol for agency service delivery. Create a research friendly environment inside the
agency by collecting high quality treatment and outcome data,
linking the two, and acting on the findings
• Seek out collaboration opportunities with researchers in the
neurosciences. Work to ensure diversity of both researchers and
research participants in studies.
• Build strategic partnerships with a diversity of other service
• Be prepared to respond to (and educate) consumers and their
families about pharmaceuticals, genetic testing, and imaging
centers they may have heard about through promotions and
• Facilitate the full participation of consumers and advocates in
any decision-making related to the integration of neuroscience
advances with behavioral health care.
• Seek flexible, unrestricted funding to underwrite the pursuit of
new and innovative behavioral health treatments.
The New Frontier: Neuroscience Advancements & Their Impact on Nonprofit Behavioral Health Care Providers
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